Tackling the challenge of low-performing students

Steve Higgins, Professor of Education, Durham University, comments on the latest OECD report, Low-Performing Students. Professor Higgins is one of the authors of the Sutton Trust/EEF Teaching and Learning Toolkit. 

“The Sutton Trust-Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) funded Teaching and Learning Toolkit, is maintained and developed by a team of researchers at Durham University. It is an accessible summary of educational research which provides guidance for teachers and schools on how to use their resources to improve the attainment of disadvantaged pupils and raise attainment for all. The Toolkit currently covers 34 topics, each summarised in terms of their average impact on attainment, the strength of the evidence supporting them and their cost in terms of outlay for schools: https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/toolkit/toolkit-a-z/ . Key findings are that the quality of teaching is important with feedback to learners and approaches which encourage learners to take responsibility for planning, managing and evaluating their own learning tendin to be more successful on average than other approaches.

The Toolkit is a live resource that is updated on a regular basis as findings from EEF-funded projects and other high-quality educational research become available. Since its inception in 2011, the EEF has commissioned over 100 projects, mainly controlled trials, involving over 6,200 schools in England and affecting 715,000 pupils. Findings from approaches which show promise are taken to scale, and successful approaches are promoted through the Toolkit and a campaigns strategy: https://educationendowmentfoundation.org.uk/toolkit/making-best-use-of-teaching-assistants/.

The relationship between spending and pupil outcomes is not simple. Per pupil spending increased by 85% between 1997 and 2011, but improvements in pupil outcomes were marginal on most measures. At school level, it is clear that different ways of spending school budgets can have very different impacts on pupil attainment, and choosing what to prioritise is not easy. Even once a decision to implement a particular strategy has been taken there are a wide variety of factors which determine its impact. Educational research can help schools spend their resources more effectively both in terms of making an initial choice between strategies, and in implementing a strategy as effectively as possible.

One particular area of spending decisions for schools in England which research can inform is how to spend the Pupil Premium. Introduced in England in 2010, the aim of the Pupil Premium is to raise achievement among disadvantaged children. In the 2015-16 financial year the Pupil Premium is worth £935 per eligible child in secondary schools and £1300 per eligible child in primary schools. In Wales a similar policy, the Pupil Deprivation Grant, allocates about £1050 to support each disadvantaged child. These policies provide additional funding to schools for disadvantaged pupils to ensure they benefit from the same educational opportunities as pupils from wealthier families. If the Pupil Premium is to succeed in achieving its ambitious goals, the choices that schools make in allocating the money are of vital importance.

Findings from EEF projects so far indicate that improvement in attainment is possible, at least in the short term, particularly through approaches such as one-to-one or intensive small group tuition, supported by teachers or trained teaching assistant. More than 40 projects have so far reported. The EEF is also committed to creating a data-archive of the findings from all of their projects over the next decade, which can be linked to national pupil progress data, so that the longer term impact of interventions can be evaluated so that we can predict more effectively how many interventions and of what kind are likely to help disadvantaged learners make better progress.

The OECD report sets out clearly that we understand what is associated with disadvantage and low attainment, but not how to tackle it. In England and Wales we have made a good start on identifying possible solutions and tackling the challenge.”

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